WILLIAMSTOWN -- Dave Simonds's newest film, "Cherry Cottage," looks at American history through the lens of a single house built in Stockbridge in 1782 and incorporates a variety of local voices. The film will show on Sunday, Nov. 3, at Images Cinema on Spring Street as part of the Williamstown Film Festival.
"We talk about ‘eat local,'" said Simonds, who is a native of the Berkshires. "I like the idea of ‘film local.' You know, use people you have around here."
Cherry Cottage was built under the guidance of Judith Williams Thayer, sister of Ephraim Williams, whose estate funded the creation of Williams College in 1793, and it is the birthplace of Mark Hopkins, president of Williams from 1836 to 1872. A long list of historical figures have lived in Cherry Cottage, including Theodore Sedgewick, the fifth speaker of the House of Representatives, and astronaut Story Musgrave.
"It's not a house owned by the big guns of American history," Simonds said, "but it's all these people right next to it - you know, right next to the main events of history."
David Dudley Field (after whom Field Park at the top of Main Street is named), for example, was a lawyer and law reformer who offered council to Abraham Lincoln throughout the Civil War.
Simonds's work as a filmmaker and actor (on stage and screen) has reached audiences around the world.
"Cherry Cottage" is his first feature-length film, and as with most of his other films, he did all of the shooting, directing and editing himself. His current project, a documentary celebrating the conventional dairy farm, is a collaboration with Sarah Gardner, associate director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College.
Soon after returning to his native Williamstown, Simonds was introduced by a client to Hans Morris, a partner at General Atlantic, chairman of the Board of Trustees at Mass MoCA and owner of Cherry Cottage. Learning about the cottage's diverse history and sharing it with others has become something of a personal mission for Morris.
"His enthusiasm for the topic was infectious," said Simonds, who soon found himself embarking on a five-year film project, using a variety of local resources to unlock the house's many doors into the past and present.
"If you think about it, making a movie about a house is not ideal subject matter," Simonds reflected, but talking with Morris in 2008, he realized that "the actual story is incredible. And it really is an amazing arc of American history - from Native Americans to hippies and everything in between."
At first, Morris was reluctant to be in the film, Simonds said, but his role as the house's owner and caretaker ended up being a central part of the story.
"It took me about two years to convince him, and I'm really glad he's in it because he's our thread, really. We meet him and we kind of watch him as he learns about his house," Simonds said. Morris is also the film's cowriter and executive producer.
Simonds focused on primary sources in the film, including diaries, photographs, paintings, historical images and artifacts.
The surgeon Charles McBurney, who purchased the Cherry Hill farm in 1897 and built a much larger house on the property, discovered in the attic of the cottage a collection of Hopkins family letters, written between 1770 and 1857, which Simonds also used for the film. The letters are now housed in the Williams College archives.
Several of the cottage's former residents are still living, including Jarvis Rockwell (son of Norman Rockwell) and the artist Susan Merrill, who lived in the cottage with Rockwell in 1969. Arlo Guthrie lived in a neighboring house in 1967, the year his song "Alice's Restaurant" brought national fame to the town of Stockbridge.
"Maybe there is an important feature to every house," Guthrie says in the film. "Maybe there is a wealth of information out there - and all it takes is for somebody to tell us a story about one house."
During the film's production, Morris and his wife, Kate, embarked on a historical restoration of the cottage, working with Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects, which has offices in Albany and Williamsburg, V.A. The progress of the restoration became a kind of frame around Simonds's own historical investigation and provided a further level of continuity to the film.
"The architectural historians broke the house into four architectural periods that really lined up with history in a very interesting way," Simonds said. "And I thought, we could structure the film in that way - so the architectural periods could be the ‘acts' of the film."
William Flynt of Historic Deerfield (an open-air museum that features 11 historic buildings) analyzed the cottage using dendrochronology, which involved taking core samples from its wooden beams. By comparing the spaces between the growth rings in the wood to those of local samples whose age was already known, Flynt determined that the house was built in 1782. A circular that George Washington had sent out to the states in that same year was also discovered beneath a layer of plaster during the restoration.
In restoring the oldest part the house (there have been several renovations and additions over the years) the architectural team used only materials that would have been used when the house was built. Mrs. Morris also worked to identify colors, fabrics and furniture that would have been popular at the time.
The Stockbridge library held its 150th-Anniversary Gala at the cottage in 2012, the year after the restoration was completed.
"A lot of filmmakers think, ‘To do my film I need a helicopter and cranes, or else we can't do it.'" Simonds said. "Well I like to say, ‘What do we have?' "There's always something amazing possible with what you already have."
"We tried to make a work of art," he added. "It's not a dense academic film; it's pretty light. And I think you can walk away with sort of a refreshed sense of our history."
If you go:
What: Cherry Cottage
When: Sunday, Nov. 3, at 2 p.m.
Where: Images Cinema, 50 Spring St.
An earlier version of this article ran on Thursday, May 31.